Whitehaven News

The Whitehaven News

Thursday, February 15, 2001


ANTI-nuclear group Core (Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment) has accused BNFL of taking a slapdash and dangerous approach to safety following an incident in the Sellafield high-level waste storage plant.

There was no release of radioactivity but for two hours part of the B215 plant lacked cooling air. This triggered a flashing light to which operators failed to respond .

Nuclear inspectors are satisfied there was no real risk of an explosion but the incident has led to another reprocessing shutdown of Thorp.

B215 houses the high-level liquid waste tanks which contain Sellafield's most potentially hazardous radioactive materials.

Martin Forward. for Core, said the tanks had to be actively cooled and ventilated 24 hours a day in order to prevent a build up of explosive gases otherwise there could be "a catastrophic off-site release of radioactivity".

But BNFL insisted there was never any danger of that.

Sellafield spokeswoman Ali Dunlop said: "This loss of ventilation would have had to go on for days, if not weeks, before the safety of the site or the general public could have been jeopardised in any way."

She said evacuation was not necessary because there was no escape of radioactivity.

The Government's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), which recently ordered BNFL to reduce its high-level waste stocks, said the risk of a hydrogen explosion was very small.

"We considered it and discounted it," said spokesman Mark Wheeler.

"Our immediate concern was whether there was any radiological risk to workers in the immediate area and whether there was any release to the atmosphere."

A Core spokesman claimed: "This slap-dash and dangerous approach to safety confirms that Windscale Man is still alive and kicking despite last year's criticisms of safety management by NII and BNFL's promises to clean up its act."

Sellafield's director of operations, Brian Watson, has ordered an inquiry. He is particularly concerned about the lack of response to the alarm.

Mr Watson has also suspended the movement of high-level waste while the inquiry is going on and, because reprocessing produces the waste products, Thorp has been shut down again.

BNFL said the problem arose from the installation of a new piece of equipment for treating the plant's ventilation gases. It meant that part of B215 lost ventilation for a couple of hours.

Although the flashing light went off, workers failed to follow the procedures they should have done in attempting to restore the correct volume and flow of air.

Only about 11 people work in the plant per shift and a handful of operators were in the affected part of the plant.

The NII sent in a team of four inspectors after the incident on the night of January 26. It has ordered BNFL to come up with a report within a month and told it not to connect up the new ventilation scrubber without the NII's consent